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Tom Doctoroff: Post-Crisis Japan: Ready to Embrace the World?

Apr 26, 2011 2:28:08 AM- huffingtonpost.com
Japan, heretofore a land unto itself, soothed by a unique combination of geographic isolation and Zen-Buddhist equanimity, has discovered the world can be kind. If the nation's leaders take this opportunity to encourage citizens to "open up," to emerge from their spiritual shell, Japan will become more confident, more productive and forward leaning. If not, she will retreat even deeper into a post-crisis private Idaho, a web of gauzy pessimism and meticulous obsession with tradition.

Although I write frequently on Chinese affairs, I also oversee our Japan operations. I love our Tokyo office. It is a high-risk, high-return garden of delight. Our people boast brilliant nuance and are supremely empathetic. Financially, the situation, of course, has been challenging for years; most multinational clients have abandoned the country as a source of future growth. But the Japanese, when the stars align and strategic imperatives are unambiguous, shape miracles. When communication is clear, no office, East or West, has stronger sense conceptual craftsmanship and mission. When "harmony" reigns, no office derives greater satisfaction from crystalline creative expression, in both "traditional" and "new" (i.e., digital) media. When anxiety spikes, on the other hand, colleagues regress into "lock down" mode; work becomes safe, derivative. Client-agency relationships lapse into dysfunctional master-servant co-dependency, with employees lacking the courage to challenge convention.

A Turning Point: For Better or Worse. The tendency to swing from the inspired to the mundane, from bold experimentation to static conformism, characterizes not only advertising agencies but also the nation as a whole. Today, Japan is in a state of suspended animation, nervously anticipating either a cultural renaissance or an acceleration of its two-decade decline. During recent visits, the adjective most frequently used to describe the nation's psychology is "fragile." People want to help but don't know, exactly, how. Soft voices express a both stoic doubt and determination to, collectively, overcome tragedy. Some colleagues haul supplies to the disaster zone; others withdraw into the safety of home and hearth. During a "motivational" talk, I asked the agency to become "an island of optimism." This triggered tears of longing.

To more deeply understand the psychological toll of recent events, JWT conducted a Japan run of its global "Anxiety Index" survey. We spoke with 1,000+ respondents in prefectures not directly impacted by the earthquake (i.e., outside Fukushima, Miyagi and Iwate). Yes, the population is skittish. The vast majority - 91% -- described themselves as "very" or "somewhat" anxious about the future. (It must be noted, however, Japan has not been confident about the state of affairs for some time. A year ago, 89% of respondents claimed to be pessimistic about the country's prospects.) Disquiet is more "home grown" than pre-crisis concerns. For example, confidence in the government's ability to manage budget deficits has plummeted. The China "import" threat, meanwhile, has receded to the background.

"Reliable" Foreign Institutions. These findings, of course, are not surprising. One interesting conclusion, however, has emerged. For the first time, international institutions -- foreign governments, NGOs and the media -- have supplanted Japanese ones as reliable sources of information and, more broadly, leadership. Only 33% trust "official" reports regarding radiation risks. An even lower percentage believes "today's leaders" can steer Japan through the crisis. "Big corporations" and "foreign media" are both considered more "truthful" and "effective." Less quantifiably, I was struck by how surprised people were by offers of assistance from around the world. They were also moved by foreign respect for Japanese grace under pressure. They were elated by our admiration of their civility (e.g., lining up to use public telephones, limited looting).

International Engagement: A New Imperative. For the first time in recent memory, people realize foreigners can be friends. If this epiphany is reinforced, Japan may reconsider its traditional "heads down" relationship with the world, a reorientation that would, in multiple ways, enhance productivity. It is difficult for outsiders to grasp the "island fortress" mentality that pervades daily life. On the surface, the country is modern and international; my twin brother calls Tokyo "future world." The majority of talent in television ads is Caucasian. From Hokkaido to Kyushu, Apple-mania sweeps the nation. However, deep down and in vivid contrast to the Chinese, Japan has never embraced other cultures. "Westernization," from the Meiji restoration til today, feels like a shield, a compromise to keep the devil at the doorstep. Few corporations are willing to work with multinational advertising agencies. (The pragmatic Chinese have embraced Western "expertise"; almost 50% JWT's mainland revenue comes from domestic companies.) Businesses never hire foreigners. Employees are cautious when regional management visits; they retreat into self-protective operational silos. Very few college graduates speak passable English. Even nightclubs decline entry to non-Japanese patrons. In Shanghai, there are at least 100,000 expatriate Japanese but they are invisible, clustered within Japanese villages where residents dine and socialize amongst themselves.

Economically, Japan's self-segregation is profoundly inefficient. Fashion brands, brilliantly creative, are rarely commercialized for international export. Global companies are tone deaf -- they "freeze" -- and when confronted with public relations crises; during 2010's auto recalls, Toyota was no more skilled in assuaging public anxiety than Tokyo Gas and Electric. Leaders are acutely aware of a demographic time bomb that will decimate the supply of skilled workers. But they have done nothing to liberalize archaic immigration laws. Worse, as economic insecurity spreads, the nation is caught in a vicious cycle of fear and retreat. More youth are cocooned in small apartments; fewer take interest in foreign affairs, let alone travel abroad. They are quarantined from the positive forces of change.

I am not optimistic the Japanese will, en masse, "discover the world." The pull of the familiar is too comforting. The pursuit of intra-group harmony as an end in itself is too entrenched. However, sustained engagement with foreign entities can shift the "benefit equation" inherent in a broader worldview. Foreigners and Japanese alike must ensure bilateral amity takes root. Corporate exchange programs and a push for more Japanese students to study abroad are interesting "first step" programs. Another potential catalyst for evolution is Japan Inc. Given a shrinking domestic market, a broad array of second-tier Japanese multinationals have, at long last, begun to cultivate international markets. Companies such as Nikon, Unicharm, Ricoh, Fujitsu and others are -- tentatively -- following in the footsteps of titans such as Sony and the automakers by developing European and American markets. In the process, they are establishing mutli-dimensional partnerships with foreign advertising agencies, non-Japanese distributors and other entities. Perhaps the most powerful force for change will, in the end, be prosaic: the bottom line.

Change, of course, will require sustained top-down leadership. The $64,000 question is whether such leadership exists and, if so, whether it is willing to cultivate the seeds of global citizenship until they bear fruit.

Read more: Japanese Isolation, Zen, Jwt, Japan Radiation Fears, Media, Japanese Leadership, Toyota, Japan Tsunami, Japanese Advertising, Japan Earthquake, Japanese Government, Japan Crisis, Tokyo Gas and Electric, Buddhism, World News